“Since 2020, food banks and low-income families have been fraught with uncertainty,” says Markell Miller, director of Food Gatherers’ community food programs. “They’re feeling increasingly stretched and stressed.”
Now auto industry strikes, a potential government shutdown, rising food and gas prices, shrinking U.S. Department of Agriculture contributions, and the termination of the Covid-era expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have combined to form the perfect storm for the eighty-three public food pantries Food Gatherers serves in Washtenaw County.
“When does a crisis become the new norm?” Fayiza Nabilsi asks rhetorically. The director of the county’s largest pantry, at Bryant Community Center, answers her own question: “When it’s not even news anymore. That’s when we’re in trouble.”
The Bryant pantry is currently serving 450 people per week, and Nabilsi expects the number to rise during the holidays. “Circumstances for many people are really scary this year,” she says. In addition to food, “our shoppers tell us they need gas money, hygienic supplies, cleaning supplies, and diapers.”
South Lyon’s Active Faith Community Services is also fielding far more requests for help, executive director Sharon Sower reports: “sometimes double, what we’re used to seeing—and that was before the UAW strike.”
“We have definitely seen the need rise—by 60 percent since the beginning of the year—but we probably have a little less food in our packages than in the past, because Food Gatherers has less to share,” says Sarah Shugart, executive director of Faith in Action, which serves Chelsea, Dexter, and nearby communities.
“The need is growing, our budgets are shrinking, and food prices are rising,” says Food Gatherers CEO Eileen Spring. “I admit that I feel panic-stricken at times.”
The statistics are startling: 56,000 individuals made approximately 1 million visits to Washtenaw County food pantries in the fiscal year ending in June. Nationwide, the need for food assistance rose 50 percent between February, when the extra SNAP benefits ended, and August. “We’re not only seeing an increase in visits, but also new faces,” Spring says.
“These are low-income working individuals and families who were able to put food on the table before—but could do very little else,” Miller explains. “Now they can’t do that.”
“They have a lot of pride, and they held off as long as they could before asking for help,” says Helen Harms, who coordinates food distribution for Trinity Lutheran Church. “But they can’t put food on the table now without assistance.”
Food Gatherers is receiving 20 percent less food from the USDA and is buying groceries to fill the void—40 percent more than a year ago. “It’s a necessary emergency response, but it’s not sustainable,” Spring says.
The Bryant Community Center pantry is now assembling Thanksgiving boxes and looking ahead to a children’s holiday party and Adopt-a-Family gift boxes. But as food banks struggle to handle the immediate need, even bigger worries loom. “I shudder to think about the potential impact if there is a budget shutdown in November,” Miller says.
“We need help. We all need help,” Bryant’s Nabilsi says.
Spring agrees, but points out, “The majority of our charitable donations arrive in November and December. Right now, we’re lagging behind where we usually are. But we’re hopeful that we can make up the shortfall. This is a very generous community.”
This article has been edited since with was published in the November 2023 Ann Arbor Observer. The number of public food pantries served by Food Gatherers in Washtenaw County has been corrected.